Michael Tracy, Artist Who Helped Restore a Texas Border Town, Dies at 80

Michael Tracy, a flamboyant artist inspired by religion, violence and sensuality who dedicated much of his life to preserving neglected 19th-century architecture on the Texas-Mexico border, died on June 15 at his studio compound in San Ygnacio, Texas. He was 80.

Christopher Rincón, the executive director of the River Pierce Foundation, Mr. Tracy ’s historic preservation organization, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Tracy’s baroque fusions of bright paint, wood, metals, knives, swords, religious images, hair, blood, urine, photographs and other detritus were in vogue 40 years ago; he had exhibitions in New York, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere. His work was “as enthralling as it is gross,” the critic Bill Berkson wrote in Artforum of one such exhibit in 1989. Mr. Tracy once appeared on the magazine’s cover.

But by 2014 he had faded from view; that year he was described by the New York Times critic Roberta Smith as a “little-known artist from Texas who made torn and cut paintings and fetishlike sculptures fraught with intimations of religion and violence.”

As his fame in the art world diminished and his relations with gallery owners became prickly, Mr. Tracy turned his attention to the lonely spot on the U.S.-Mexico border that he had adopted as his workplace in 1978: San Ygnacio, a tiny, empty town on the Rio Grande, unique in its assemblage of mid-19th-century Mexican ranch-vernacular buildings.

Mr. Tracy, a turbulent, loud-voiced artist who favored knee-length tunics, fell in love with these 32 unassuming, low-slung sandstone structures, set on silent streets. “He was very excited about coming upon something so authentic and unmodified,” Mr. Rincón said. Mr. Tracy wound up restoring seven of them, including — through his foundation, and with help from the National Park Service — the 1830 Treviño-Uribe Rancho, a National Historic Landmark.

An outsider from Ohio, Mr. Tracy embraced the town. The town, with its diminutive population of around 500, many of them descendants of the original settlers, did not exactly embrace him.

They were disturbed, in 1990, by one of his more extravagant gestures: the ritual burning in the Rio Grande of a giant crosslike object that Mr. Tracy called “Cruz: La Pasión.” Video footage shows dozens of fashionably dressed spectators watching solemnly as it goes up in flames in the muddy river. Mr. Tracy called the spectacle “The River Pierce: Sacrifice II.”

Yet if San Ygnacio was baffled by Mr. Tracy, there were links between his artistic projects and the crumbling, forlorn outpost on the border that he was enamored of, in the view of Adam Weinberg, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“His work is deeply embedded in Catholicism and Christianity,” Mr. Weinberg said in an interview, and “in the village you could have a mix between Indigenous religion and Catholicism” that was “away from the overbearing governance of churches.”

Mr. Weinberg said that Mr. Tracy’s work was “very edgy and transgressive,” and that it was “all about borders” — a notion the artist was both fascinated and repelled by. So his decision to settle near the Rio Grande, where he saw migrants desperately trying to cross and Border Patrol vehicles cruising, was, in Mr. Weinberg’s view, logical.

“His work is really about the slippage between borders, which means culture,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Mr. Tracy’s art breaks down barriers between religion and profanity, incorporating both “the dramatic sensuality of European baroque painting and the vivid pageantry of Catholic ritual,” the poet and critic Roberto Tejada wrote in an appreciation.

Mr. Tracy himself, as quoted by Mr. Tejada, wrote: “Living on the ‘northern’ edge of the Rio Grande, on what officially is the edge of Latin America, has had immeasurable impact on my life and work. I have had a front-row seat in the ongoing drama of two distinct cultures hemorrhaging into each other; the physical migration itself, the cultural nullity, the sociological angst and despair, and the legal miasma.”

Charles Michael Tracy was born on Sept. 30, 1943, in Bellevue, Ohio, the son of Charles Louis Tracy, a journalist who wrote about aviation, and Justine (Oehm) Tracy. He studied literature and art at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and received a B.A. in 1964. He did further study at the Cleveland Institute of Art, from 1964 to 1967, and received an M.F.A. in studio art from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969.

His first major show was “Seven Gold Paintings,” at the McNay Art Institute in San Antonio in 1971. Two exhibitions followed in 1972: “Six Paintings,” at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, and “Paintings and Drawings,” at the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston.

PS1 (now MoMA PS1) in Queens mounted a major exhibition of his work in 1987, when his reputation was at its height. The Times art critic Michael Brenson wrote that Mr. Tracy was “determined to violate the pictorial and sculptural skin and release every feeling that may have been sealed or pent up inside it.”

“The surfaces of his devotional paintings and sculptures — as small as reliquaries or as big as walls — may be torn, stabbed or cut,” Mr. Brenson wrote.

But then “the art world moved on,” Mr. Tejada said in an interview, and Mr. Tracy’s relations with the gatekeepers in the galleries soured.

“He would always depart from the normal way of doing business in the gallery world,” Mr. Rincón said. “He would be the first to speak out against rules he didn’t feel he should abide by.”

Mr. Tracy is survived by two brothers, Daniel and Christopher.

In the 1990s, Mr. Tracy moved to Mexico City, where Mr. Tejada encountered him — “larger than life, bold gestures, very dramatic persona,” he recalled.

He also had his refuge in San Ygnacio by then, a place to which he was drawn as if by electromagnetic fields, he told The Times in 2018.

“He chose to be off the grid in terms of where he lived, but not in terms of how he worked,” Mr. Weinberg said. “He was one of those people left out of the story of contemporary art history, but who has to be rethought. He was deeply committed, and deeply sophisticated.”

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